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Wildfires sweep across the southwest amid historic drought conditions

By Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian
Saturday, May 26, 2012 6:42 EDT
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San Bernadino wildfire via NASA
 
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Lightning strikes and already-dry conditions are keeping firefighters busy fighting more than a dozen blazes

Wildfires raced across a dry and windy south-west on Friday, destroying dozens of homes and depositing a smoky haze over the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Fueled by historic drought conditions, the wildfire season opened early this year in the rugged mountains of Arizona. By Friday morning, crews were fighting more than a dozen blazes in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, California and Utah. A few small towns were under evacuation order, and at least 170 square miles of brush and forest had been consumed by flames.

In New Mexico’s Gila national forest, fires started by lightening strikes tripled in size over the last 48 hours, with high winds forcing firefighters to the sidelines. More than a dozen summer cabins in the town of Willow Creek were destroyed as the fire burned across 110 miles of steep forested canyons.

“The fire had been around about 10 days, lurking and creeping and then kaboom, it exploded,” said Tabitha Sims, secretary of the Willow Creek landowners association, told local reporters. “They made a heroic effort at trying to build a break, but I think it was unfortunate that this wind event happened to come right at the worst time.”

Much of the state was covered in a haze, with local television stations reporting poor air quality in Albuquerque, some 170 miles away.High winds, with gusts of 60mph were expected until Sunday, blocking fire crews from cutting a containment line ahead of the fire.

In Arizona, meanwhile, more than 1,100 fighters, backed up by aircraft, were slowly containing the most dangerous fire,the Gladiator fire, which had forced the evacuation of the old mining ton of Crown King and consumed 27 square miles of pine and brush north of Phoenix.

A blast of humid air from the Pacific coast also brought some relief, slowing the march of the flames with crews reinforcing control lines around Arizona’s other fires.

The early start to the fire season, with the Arizona fires, has deepened fears about a re-run of last year’s disastrous wildfires. More than 1,500 square miles across the south-west were torched, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Tom Spencer, who heads the predictive service for the Texas forest service, warned earlier this month that similarly dangerous conditions were in place across the south-west.

“It’s not looking very good for Arizona right now,” he said. “But all of the west right now has the potential to have an active fire season.”

Other areas of the country are at high risk of wildfires too, after experiencing the warmest spring in the temperature records. March, April and May 2012 have brought summer temperatures, and set new heat records, across much of the mid-western and eastern United States.

Those dry conditions have fueled a fast-moving wildfire in Michigan’s upper peninsula that was discovered after a lightening strike on Wednesday.

Officials said a number of summer cabins were evacuated as the fire tore through pine forest around Duck Lake, north of the town of Newberry.

Fire crews were also fighting a fire at the Seney national wildlife refuge, which covers about 95,000 acres.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

 
 
 
 
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